Tag Archives: Thailand

Beach Memories

When I was growing up in Bangkok in the late 60’s, Thailand’s beaches were not yet much of a tourist destination. Even Pattaya Beach was unspoiled and seemed barely used (I know that will be beyond the imagining of anyone who first saw it from the late 70’s on). We used to drive down there Read More…

When I was growing up in Bangkok in the late 60’s, Thailand’s beaches were not yet much of a tourist destination. Even Pattaya Beach was unspoiled and seemed barely used (I know that will be beyond the imagining of anyone who first saw it from the late 70’s on). We used to drive down there for weekends. I’d spend hours creating tide-based water systems: it was a never-ending battle to keep the water moving just so, whether the tide was going out or coming in, but I found that more interesting than building sand castles.

You could also pay for horse rides on the beach, something I felt marvelously privileged to do once per trip. Clinging proudly to the horse’s mane, trotting along the beach as the horse man jogged alongside, I was in heaven – in spite of the insides of my bare knees being rubbed raw from riding on a sweaty old saddle in my shorts or bathing suit.

Once, when my parents wanted to get far away from it all, they and a group of friends hired a fishing boat to take us out to one of the little islands off the coast. This was minimally equipped for visitors: three-sided palm-thatched shacks built a few few feet above the ground where the beach met the sparse jungle, food supplied by the villagers who lived the other side of the island. I hunted for shells, played in sparkling sand, and swam in crystal blue waters – once right around the point to the inhabited side of the island!

Back in Bangkok, I was in the pool just about every day and for hours on weekends, playing “Marco Polo” with the swarm of American kids who lived in our apartment compound, and diving for coins even at the deep end.

Deirdré in the pool at Red Rose Court, Bangkok, ~1969

I was a decent swimmer and loved water in any form, though I was afraid of big waves. This was a handicap when my father and I stopped over in Hawaii on our way back to the US when we left Thailand (1971) – I was only 9, and all the waves there looked big to me. My dad’s idea to “cure” this fear was to throw me into the surf. A particularly large wave promptly threw me back, tumbling me end over end, blinding me with foam and filling my ears and nose with sand. After that, I was afraid of anything larger than a one-foot swell.

Then we moved to Pittsburgh, where there are no beaches and I rarely even got near a swimming pool, though I did have a few opportunities to play in creeks at a friend’s farm in western Pennsylvania. I didn’t really see a beach again until we moved to Connecticut – whose beaches were better than no beaches, but far from my memories of Thailand.

In the following years I got still further from sea level, attending high school up in the Indian Himalayas. Coincidentally, my dad and stepmother moved back to Thailand during this time, even living for a year or so in the same apartment complex, Red Rose Court, where I had lived with my dad and mother 10 years earlier. The pool was still there, but not the swarm of kids. I never went in it.

But I did have one significant ocean experience. During a long winter vacation from school, my father and I did a scuba diving course together. That’s a story unto itself, but the final qualifier was a weekend of open-water dives from a boat off Pattaya. By this time my eyesight was so poor that I had to have a dive mask with prescription lenses – which, fortunately, optometrists in Bangkok were well able to make. This made it possible for me to see the wonders under water, which I enjoyed far more than waves and sand.

In early 1980, I took part in the Winter Tour, a six-week trip around India run by Woodstock School to keep students busy during the long vacation, especially those who were in India on a one-year “package program” and would not be returning to their families at Christmas.

We visited several beaches around India – Goa, Kovalam, Trivandrum. By this time I was not enthusiastic about sea swimming: I couldn’t see without my glasses, but was afraid to wear them into the water and risk losing them in rough surf. One afternoon at the beach some friends persuaded me to swim with them, leaving my glasses in care of other friends on the sand. When we finally came out, dusk was falling and our friends had returned to the hotel, carefully taking all our stuff with them – including my glasses. The route back to the hotel was a steep, narrow path, ever less visible in the dimming light. I had to walk with one friend before and one behind, each holding my hand. That walk was terrifying for me; I still occasionally have nightmares about fumbling, near-blind, without glasses.

This consolidated my fear of swimming in any sort of open water, and I’m no longer very keen on pools, either.

Then came twenty years of Italy, with Enrico. On our first visit there together in the summer of 1988, we were traveling around northern Italy, and stopped off to meet some friends of his at a beach in Liguria. I was deeply disappointed: this particular beach had no sand at all, just a scree of smooth stones. People were lounging under regimented rows of umbrellas, with little tables attached to hold drinks and snacks. The water was chilly and uninviting, so they seemed to be there mostly to lie in the sun and chatter with friends.

To my horror, it turned out that many Italian beaches – certainly the most-frequented ones in central and northern Italy – are set up like this with “lidos”: rows and rows of umbrellas and lounge chairs, meticulously maintained and rented by the day, week, or month. Families return to the same beach and even the same umbrellas year after year – the front row, closest to the water, being the most expensive. On the more popular beaches such as Rimini, there may be 10 to 15 rows of umbrellas; those furthest back have effectively no view of the water.

During peak vacation periods, all of these umbrellas are rented: it’s as if every Italian family moves itself into a very small living room, elbow to elbow with other families doing the same. Some bring radios. All have cellphones. The lido owners also take it upon themselves to entertain their guests with pop music from speakers on poles along the beach. Cars cruise along the lungomare (beachfront road), blaring advertisements for local events and businesses from huge loudspeakers mounted on their roofs. An Italian beach vacation is anything but peaceful and relaxing.

beach, Roseto degli Abruzzi

Like many Italian families, Enrico’s parents had a seconda casa: a second (vacation) home, which they had already owned for decades. Theirs was in Roseto degli Abruzzi, a small town on Italy’s central Adriatic coast which has not much reason for being, that I can see, except as a holiday destination. It was a two-bedroom apartment at the top of a four-story building, overlooking the beachfront road and then the beach (the view above is from the balcony). This particular patch of beach was less developed when we first started going there in 1990, with just five or six rows of blue and white umbrellas and chairs rented out by a neighbor in the building, whose main profession was plumbing. Over the years he expanded his lido concession with more rows of ombrelloni, a snack bar, changing rooms and showers – which brought him up to par with the competition.

The beach at this point was wide by Italian standards, protected by breakwaters and periodically replenished with sand trucked in from elsewhere. Its gentle slope with shallow water for a long way out made it ideal for little kids, so it was a great place for our daughter Rossella to spend vacations with her parents and doting grandparents.

Rossella and Nonna Graziella, Roseto

Cramming us plus the parents plus Enrico’s brother and his girlfriend into the tiny apartment for weeks was not ideal, nor was spending the colder Easter and Christmas seasons in Roseto when Enrico’s parents eventually retired there for health reasons… but that’s another story.

There were practically no waves on this part of the Adriatic coast, so I felt safe to go in the water a bit (wearing my glasses), but it was murky and uninteresting compared with the crystal waters of my childhood in Thailand. I built in the sand with Ross a bit, but there wasn’t enough tidal variance in water level to make hydraulic engineering interesting. And I grew very tired of being trapped at our rented ombrellone, overhearing the conversations of randomly-chosen neighbors for days on end.

There are unpopulated, unspoiled, natural beaches in Italy – we saw a few, passing in the train from Milan to Abruzzi. I’m told there are far more in the south, but we never got to any of them. Italians are creatures of habit: Stessa Spiaggia, Stesso Mare.

During the dot com boom, when we seemed to have money to burn, and I needed desperately to take a vacation that I actually found relaxing, we made a few trips to the Caribbean: Martinique, St. Maarten, and St. Barth’s. The most beautiful beach we saw among this (admittedly limited) selection of islands was the nudist L’Orient Bay on St. Maarten. In Martinique, I had brought my old dive mask along, so was able to go on a brief, guided dive. The underwater scenery was more rock than coral, overall more gloomy than my bright blue and gold memories of Pattaya Bay. The water was certainly colder – we needed wetsuits.

Ross in a wetsuit, Martinique


All these memories are coming up now because I’m on vacation in Australia, which has an apparently endless supply of probably the best beaches I’ve seen anywhere. I’m still not likely to swim – the surf at most beaches I’ve seen here is far rougher than I could safely handle.  But these beaches are endlessly interesting to watch, and walk, and observe, both close up and from a distance. I’ll have lots more photos and videos to share! (The photos at the top and bottom of this page are start.)

Some Australian beaches I captured on video here.

Dudley Beach, NSW

Duchess, a Dog

From 1967 to 1972 my family lived in Bangkok. My dad worked for the US Agency for International Development, so we were officially part of the diplomatic community, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. One of which was to live in a sort of expatriates’ ghetto, an apartment compound called Red Rose Court Read More…

From 1967 to 1972 my family lived in Bangkok. My dad worked for the US Agency for International Development, so we were officially part of the diplomatic community, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

One of which was to live in a sort of expatriates’ ghetto, an apartment compound called Red Rose Court – eight or ten rows of three-story townhouses, all rented by falang (foreign) families. This little village was administered by Orapa, a Thai woman so fierce that her title – “landlady” – was synonymous with fear (for me, at least – I was a timid child).

Red Rose Court had a large driveway running its length, on one side bordered with a tall hedge of red – not roses! – hibiscus. The main gate opened onto the large, heavily-trafficked avenue that was Red Rose Court’s official address. Out the front gate and half a block to the right were a few shops that I was allowed to visit to buy candy.

The back gate gave onto a smaller, dirtier street where I was forbidden to go at all. Both gates were usually open during the day, but by some unwritten rule (I don’t remember whether there were guards) no one came in except people who were supposed to be there. And some of Bangkok’s teeming population of mangy, underfed, abused stray animals.

I was a timid child, but not stupid, and I loved animals. I learned early the trick of: “Mom, it followed me home, can I keep it?” My mother loves cats, so it wasn’t difficult to persuade her, and we acquired two cats that way. Dogs, too, realized that we foreigners were a soft touch, especially compared to Thais, who were often cruel with strays – I had seen Thai kids throwing rocks at dogs, and hitting them with sticks.

It didn’t take much street smarts for any animal to realize that Red Rose Court was a gold mine: 40 families with kids, many of them nostalgic for pets they had left behind in America, and most far more disposed than the locals to be kind to animals. When a small, skinny street dog made overtures, the kids in the compound responded gladly (in spite of our parents’ dire warnings about animals carrying rabies), and showered her with love and treats. She was grateful and affectionate, if not terribly clean. But the dirt didn’t show much against her coat. She was a color that would be called tortoiseshell on a cat; being a dog, she was brindled.

Street dogs all over Asia are much the same (I believe someone has written a thesis explaining why): medium height and light build, very short fur in various colors, lopped-over ears, stringy tails, and, usually, a head-down, furtive demeanour. They are also treated much the same all over Asia: badly.

We kids kept the dog for several weeks, hiding her when grownups were around because we were pretty sure they wouldn’t approve. But Orapa knew everything that went on in Red Rose Court, and she definitely didn’t approve of filthy animals sullying her property. She called in the dog catchers.

Had they arrived during school hours, the dog would have simply and quietly disappeared. But the dog catchers showed up with their big nets – just like in Warner Brothers cartoons – at a time we were all around, and we knew immediately what was up.

Instead of a quiet roundup of one insignificant dog, the catchers and Orapa found themselves confronted with a howling, weeping mob of kids of all ages. Though Orapa tried to calm us by claiming that the dog wouldn’t be hurt, we knew she was lying: in Thailand at that time there was no question of holding an animal at a shelter for adoption: she would simply be killed, immediately (and probably not “humanely”).

We led them a merry chase, always getting between the dog catchers and the dog, with Orapa screaming behind, until they finally cornered us. Then there was a standoff, the dog catchers not quite daring to physically wrest the dog from us.

My mother swooped in like an avenging angel and offered to officially adopt her. I’m not sure Orapa appreciated this – if this lowly street dog was elevated to the status of official pet, she would have to continue to tolerate its presence, and the defeat grated on her.

Duchess, as my mother named her, was one smart dog. Though she hadn’t had any contact with my mother before, she recognized her savior, and adopted our family in turn. She behaved well through being vetted and bathed, and stuck close to home ever after.

The following year my dad was posted back to Bangkok (after two years in Vietnam), and Duchess moved with us to a big house the next street over, a property also managed by Orapa. In a house like this, a watchdog was essential – housebreaking was so common, and the thieves so skilled, that we knew foreign families who lost one stereo after another, and never even heard anyone in the house.

Nothing of the sort ever happened to us. Perhaps because she had been so cruelly treated on the streets, Duchess hated Thais (though she accepted our servants as part of the family), and would attack strangers on sight, no questions asked. Workmen, gardeners, and other legitimate visitors had to be escorted through the property, and no one else got in at all. In our three years in that house, we only ever had one thing stolen: a table cloth that was drying on the clothesline near the back fence. My dad was roused by Duchess’ barking just in time to see someone scrambling over the wall – and leaving a bloody trail behind.

My parents separated in 1972 and I left Thailand with my father to return to the US, while my mother stayed behind in Bangkok and remarried. Duchess stayed with her and Gary til they, too, moved; then she stayed with Wandee, who had been our maid. Most expatriates didn’t try to carry pets from country to country – too expensive, risky for the animals, and in some places simply impossible. A constant theme of the roaming expatriate life is the repeated loss of dear, familiar fixtures in your life such as pets.

I remember another dog that got left behind by a Red Rose Court family. It stayed in Red Rose Court, adopted by another family, but every time a car came down the driveway, it would race out to see if its own, original family had finally come back. It was heartbreaking to see this dog running out, time after time, car after car, ears pricked and tail up with happy expectation. Then it would see that the car was the wrong one, and just collapse in on itself, drooping with disappointment.

I wonder if Duchess acted that way when we left.

Note: I confess that I actually wrote this several years ago, for my friend Claudia who was thinking of putting together an anthology, but apparently never found a buyer. I’ve been thinking about stories lately, so decided to dig out this one and share it.